Pauling’s Final Guggenheim Fellowship

Pauling (with a broken foot) seated for a sculpture portrait session, 1966

[Pauling and the Guggenheim Foundation; part 17 of 17]

Linus Pauling’s relationship with the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation ended as it started: with Pauling as a Fellow.

Pauling’s first Guggenheim Fellowship, carried out in 1926 and 1927, helped to launch his career by putting him in touch with leading European quantum physicists. Pauling attempted to follow up on that success by applying for another fellowship, this time covering the summer of 1930 and focusing on the x-ray crystallographic methodology being pursued in Manchester by W. L. Bragg. Bragg was determining the structures of silicates and similar compounds, and Pauling sought to do the same thing with inorganic crystals.

Henry Allen Moe, Secretary of the Foundation, told Pauling that his 1930 application could not be renewed due to a lack of funds. Later, Pauling was looking for support for his immunology research and considered the Guggenheim as a possibility, but never followed through with a proposal. But some three decades later, once Pauling was no longer on the Foundation’s Committee of Selection, he would at last follow through once more.


Still image from one of Pauling’s 1957 lecture films on valence and molecular structure.

In 1957 the California Institute of Technology provided $17,000 for Pauling to make three fifty-minute color and sound films on the topics of molecular structure and valence. Once completed, the films proved very popular, screened by the National Science Foundation at about one hundred of their summer institutes for chemistry educators in 1959 alone. Pauling also helped colleague Richard Badger with a film on molecular vibration, though he was dissatisfied with the final result as the budget was very limited and he was still quite green as a producer. In 1960, with these experiences under his belt, Pauling proposed that he take another, more methodical approach to creating educational films about chemistry, and for that he approached the Guggenheim Foundation.

Though no longer on the Committee of Selection, Pauling was concerned that his position on the Guggenheim Advisory Board would disqualify him from consideration for a fellowship. Upon inquiry, the newly appointed Associate General Secretary of the Foundation, Gordon N. Ray, assured Pauling that there was no conflict and implored him not to resign from his board position.

With this guidance in hand, Pauling put together his application and sent it along. In doing so, Pauling reversed the circumstances of the previous thirty years: rather than serving as a reference for other applicants, Pauling this time sent in a list of those who might speak on his behalf. He was also compelled to put forth a strong case for his project, something for which he had been ably prepared by his many years on the Committee of Selection.


In his application, Pauling detailed a plan to make six ten- to fifteen-minute introductory films about molecular structure and valence. Once done, Pauling then proposed to research the films’ effectiveness by showing different versions to different students. The films would center around a short lecture, but the different edits would vary the amount of time the lecturer appeared on screen vis-à-vis models or animations. If the study identified a clearly superior production methodology, Pauling would then seek to prepare films for college and high school chemistry students.

As the project took shape in his mind, Pauling began to consult with a high-profile educational filmmaker, Syd Cassyd, the founder of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. From these conversations, Pauling developed a sense of how much it would all cost — roughly $36,000, with half going to Cassyd and the rest to production. To help cover those expenses, Pauling requested a stipend of $24,000 and offered to pay the remaining $12,000 himself.

Guggenheim Secretary Henry Allen Moe was happy to see Pauling’s application when it came in — a good sign that the proposal was headed for success. But a few months later, Pauling realized that he was drastically over-committed and ended up rescinding the application. In doing so, he expressed an intention to resubmit the following year, but this did not come to pass. However, five years later and after he had left Caltech for the Center for the Study of Democratic Intuitions in Santa Barbara, Pauling applied for a very different project.


By the mid-1960s, Pauling had developed a research interest in the structure of atomic nuclei, and though he had made progress on a theoretical model, he was uncertain whether or not his approach would pan out. To help bolster the work, he turned to the Guggenheim Foundation with a request for $36,000 over three or four years; funding enough to hire a theoretical physicist and to buy time on a computer to assist with needed quantum mechanical calculations. At the moment, Pauling had no funding at all to do work in physics.

In his application, Pauling explained that when nuclei with atomic masses greater than 230 – like uranium-235 and plutonium-239 – underwent low-energy fission, they split asymmetrically. The products of this asymmetric split were five hundred times more likely to have atomic masses of about 95 and 140 than they were to have equal masses. According to Pauling, the “alpha particle model,” which understood nuclei as consisting of particles equivalent to the nucleus of a helium-4 atom, was a good theory for explaining the lower mass, but less progress had been made in explaining the higher mass. To address this problem, Pauling had been working with a “large-cluster theory,” finding that it more completely explained the asymmetric fission along with other properties of nuclei.

Pauling thought that “helions” – an alternative term that he proposed to use in referring to alpha particles – composing the larger nuclei formed clusters that spanned the two shells that made up the nucleus. When grouped together in a nucleus, certain aggregate geometries of the clusters proved to be more stable than others, thus suggesting that some post-fission geometries were more probable than others.

Uranium and plutonium, for example, each had ten clusters, but if they were split evenly into two nuclei of five clusters, the resultant geometries would be unstable. Splitting instead into a four cluster nuclei and a six cluster nuclei would be much more stable and would match with experimental observations. While he felt that he had essentially worked out the theory, Pauling hoped to incorporate more mathematics into his model, in part to boost its appeal among physicists.


Image of Gordon N. Ray contemporary to his receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941. Ray would later become President of the Foundation.

The Committee of Selection agreed that Pauling’s application had promise and, nearly forty years after his germinal trip to Europe, Pauling was once again a Guggenheim Fellow.

Pauling was one of 313 US and Canadian fellows in the class of 1966, a group that was selected from a pool of 1,869 applicants. The fellows were granted a total of $2,115,700, a sum that represented more than seven percent of the gross aggregate funding provided by the Foundation over the entirety of its 41-year history.

This major increase in annual awards was in part a reflection of a changing era within the Foundation, one marked by Henry Allen Moe’s 1963 retirement and Gordon Ray’s subsequent assumption of leadership. Overseeing a group of more than 300 awardees, Ray would not be able to meet with each fellow, as Moe had sought to do, but he took pains to reach out to Pauling with an invitation to get together the next time he was in New York. As he had previously been working without funds, Pauling was thrilled to have the support of the Foundation, and told Ray that he was already putting together three papers relevant to the award. Some of this research would be also presented at the National Academy of Sciences meeting in October.

As it happened, the Foundation did not provide the full amount that Pauling asked for, instead authorizing a total of $30,000 over three years. Management of the grant proved difficult as well. Despite the fact that he had not been on faculty at Caltech for nearly three years, Pauling asked that the first $8,000 be sent to the Institute for them to administer, and the next $10,000 sent to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. Neither arrangement ended up proving convenient for Pauling, and he ultimately had the remainder of his award forwarded to him directly.

In the final year of his fellowship, Pauling sent copies of the articles that he had produced to Ray, along with a lament that the work had not received much attention. However, Pauling confided, Nobel Laureate Maria Mayer had suggested to him that one of the explanations that he had put forth for a certain problem was the only one that she had seen that made sense. Pauling continued to believe that if he could just integrate more mathematics into the theory, he could make a larger impression on the physics community.


Pauling’s successful 1966 Guggenheim application and subsequent award marked his last major interaction with the Guggenheim Foundation, an organization that he had helped to shape from its earliest years. With the bulk of this relationship behind him, Pauling still supplied comments on applicants in chemistry and biochemistry for the Committee of Selection into the mid-1960s, and submitted sporadic candidate references in the years that followed. His comments, as had always been the case, were concise and to the point, a quality that administrators like Henry Allen Moe and Gordon Ray unfailingly appreciated.

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